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You can take several steps to protect your privacy as you browse. But when we use the word privacy, we need to clarify what we mean. Most people can quickly identify at least four different types of privacy that may be a concern.
First, privacy may mean privacy from other people with access to your device. You might not want the fact that you searched for a gift for someone in your household to be discovered by someone that shares access to your computer. More concerning, a person in an abusive relationship, for example, may not want someone else in the household to know they’ve searched for help.
Second, you could mean that you want privacy between sites you visit. At one point or another, you might notice advertisements for an item you’d searched for now appear on several sites you visit. That’s because activity and ad trackers often operate across multiple sites.
Third, you likely also want privacy over the connections from your device to a website. Your browser relies on your local network connection (often over Wi-Fi), routed through your internet service provider, then over the internet to a destination website. Each step in that process represents a potential place your privacy might leak information.
Fourth, many people also prefer privacy from governments. In some countries, government agencies actively monitor and/or restrict access to information on the internet. Human rights activists, academics, and innovators, each may wish to keep internet browsing activity unknown to officials.
But a fully private web browsing experience that reveals no information whatsoever about you as you browse can be difficult to achieve. Most web browsers reveal at least some basic information to sites you visit. To get some sense of what a site might “know” about you, visit What every Browser knows about you by Robin Linus and Panopticlick from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. You’ll soon see that your browser may reveal your location, device hardware, software, and connection speed. These sites also can show whether or not your browser protects you from tracking ads or invisible trackers.
As of 2019, many people use Chrome on desktops, Safari on macOS and iOS, or either Internet Explorer or Edge on Windows systems. While each of these companies takes steps to secure these browsers, people are not able to fully audit the code in these browsers. And since Google, Apple, and Microsoft do not provide access to all of the code, many computer privacy professionals reasonably consider these browser to be less trusted than browsers for which all of the code is publicly available.
The five browsers featured below rely on open source code, with specific customizations and configurations made (or available) in favor of privacy. If you search a bit, you’ll find many more customized versions of browsers built from either the Firefox or Chromium code. The selected browsers are relatively widely used and frequently updated.
A long-established, widely-trusted privacy-focused project
Versions available for all common platforms
Tor connections available for many major web sites
Relies on a modified and customized Firefox code base
Slower than with a mainstream browser
You can’t use every site or service with the Tor Browser
Tor Browser optimizes for privacy, at a cost of speed. Available for Windows, macOS, and GNU/Linux on the desktop, with versions also available on Android (Orbot: Tor for Android) and iPhone and iPad (Onion Browser), the app relies on a system of relay requests to make it difficult to detect and track information about your location and system. Because these requests route information to distinct locations, pages take longer to load than with a conventional browser that optimizes for speed.
You can also connect specifically to sites intended to be used with Tor. These sites, identified with a .onion suffix, are intended to permit people secure and private access to services that might not otherwise be feasible. For example, someone might use Tor to connect to DuckDuckGo.onion or Facebook.onion sites from within a country where access to these services is blocked for most browsers.
A fast browser with default settings configured for privacy
Best daily-use privacy-oriented browser
Developers are technically very strong
Company behind the browser is relatively new
A comparatively new project, Brave takes the Chromium core code and customizes it with several private-by-default choices. For example, by default Brave blocks advertisements and trackers, and also strengthens the security of connections to sites from http:// to https://. That last change wraps the traffic from your browser to the website you’re visiting with encryption.
Brave also gives you simple sliders to block scripts and enable fingerprinting protection. Fingerprinting refers to the way that sites combine general information about you to create a profile. As a simple example, your location and number of apps you have installed might be enough to uniquely identify you.
Brave is available for all major platforms, including Windows, macOS, and Linux, as well as Android and iOS.
Extremely well established and widely used
Full-featured browser with support for extensions
Customization required to optimize privacy
Additional customizations and extensions add complexity
One of the oldest and most well-established browsers, Firefox, can be configured for privacy and is available for all major platforms, including Windows, macOS, and Linux, as well as Android and iOS. You may need to spend some time, however, adjusting settings to ones that, for example, block third-party cookies (that track you), clear your history when you close and enable private-browsing by default. (For some additional changes to improve privacy, see How to control your data on Firefox.)
Firefox also lets you add extensions, which can add functionality, as well. For example, you might add the Privacy Badger and HTTPS:// everywhere extensions, both from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to block ads and encrypt the connection between your browser and websites, respectively.
A focused, privacy-oriented mobile browser
One-tap to see number of ads and trackers blocked
One-tap to erase your browsing history
On iOS, several steps to enable content blocking in Safari.
While versions of Firefox are available for Android and iOS, a mobile-only app, Firefox Focus, gives you fast browsing with privacy preferred by default. Firefox Focus automatically blocks ads as well as ad trackers, website analytics trackers, social trackers, and content trackers. Optionally, you may choose to block web fonts. And, of course, you can change the default search engine.
On an iPhone or iPad, Firefox Focus can also serve as a content blocker for Safari. If you enable this option, the app will block ads and trackers as you browse with Safari.
Firefox Focus prominently displays a trash can icon on both Android and iOS. Tap the trash can and the app immediately erases your browsing history. The app also shows a shield: Tap the shield while you’re on a site to see how many trackers Firefox Focus has blocked from that site.
One-tap to erase your browsing history
Privacy practice information not available for many sites
You might know of DuckDuckGo.com as a “search engine that doesn’t track you.” Many people set DuckDuckGo as the default search engine in desktop and mobile browsers, instead of less privacy-focused alternatives.
But DuckDuckGo also offers dedicated Android and iOS apps. The app blocks ads, analytics, and social trackers. Wherever possible, it also encrypts the connection from your browser to your destination website. DuckDuckGo also lets you bookmark sites.
Similar to Firefox Focus, DuckDuckGo displays a fire icon on both Android and iOS. Tap the fire icon and confirm, then the app will immediately erase your browsing history. Any bookmarks you’ve saved, though, will remain, so you can still access those sites.
DuckDuckGo also displays a Privacy Grade. Tap the grade to see what the grade would be without tracking blocking (e.g., “D”) along with the grade as a result of tracking blocking (e.g., “B”). DuckDuckGo draws from the ToSDR.org site, also known as Terms of Services: Didn’t Read, to evaluate each site’s privacy policies. These policies, along with the quantity of trackers blocked, and availability of an encrypted connection, factor into the grade.
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